For almost forty years, the Tony Award-winning Vineyard Theatre has been a fixture on the Off-Broadway theatre scene, producing premieres of landmark works like How I Learned To Drive, Three Tall Women, The Lyons, Middletown, and Avenue Q, both on Broadway and at their theater in the heart of Union Square. “Dedicated to new work, bold programming and the support of artists,” the Vineyard’s dedication to new work has remained consistent season-to-season.
With their production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent now on Broadway, and the Off-Broadway premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s Can You Forgive Her?, a Halloween-night tale of a woman drowning in debt, opening in May with Amber Tamblyn, we talked with Literary Associate Miriam Weiner about how a literary department operates and what they look for in new plays.
Could you tell me a little bit about Can You Forgive Her?
Weiner: It’s more interesting to me know even than when we decided to do it, because it’s really talking about the state of America and what’s happening with the middle class and the American Dream. Where people find themselves. And it’s funny—it’s very, very funny… It takes place in this little seaside resort town that’s not what it once was, and everyone’s sort of trying to figure out their best options.
Gina Gionfriddo’s good at that; balancing the dark humor elements with facades that aren’t quite what they seem.
Weiner: Yeah, and it was up in Boston. They did it at the Huntington, then they’re reworking a bunch of it, and then it’s coming here.
But it’s the same team as in Boston?
Weiner: It’s a different cast, but Peter DuBois is still directing it.
And developmentally, at the Vineyard, readings and workshops are a big part of what you do. What’s coming up?
Weiner: We’re programming our spring reading series right now. We typically do a reading series in the spring and one in the fall, and then we do a larger lab for a playwright we want to devote extra time and resources to, to give them a chance with an audience, do the work, and see what it’s like on its feet. It’s very low-tech, but it has blocking and it’s a chance for them to stretch their dramaturgical muscles and see how it’s going. There’s no press, so they can do it in a safer environment.
Throughout the year, we do readings just for staff, we do readings just for artists… We really try to make opportunities for playwrights based on what they tell us they need. It can be really challenging because there are a lot of forms these things take that people are not used to. Trying to stay flexible in what we can offer is a big part of what I think we do well.
What do playwrights come to you looking for most often?
Weiner: A lot of times playwrights just want a chance to get produced. We hear that a lot: “It’s been developed. I’ve been here, here and here developing it and now I want to see it on its feet.” Or, “I think it’s ready, I don’t think it needs development, can you do the play?” And then probably next to that is, “can I have more time than whatever amount of time you’ve offered me?” [laughs]. People are just thirsty for a chance to work.
Could you tell me a bit about your role at the Vineyard?
Weiner: I’m responsible for keeping track of all the submissions that come through agents, through friends of artists and through recommendations. And keeping track of what the theatre is going to go out and see. I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of talking with my artistic directors (Douglas Aibel and Sarah Stern) about what I think is exciting and which playwrights I think are exciting. And I run an internship program, where I train people to do all that.
Having seen not only all the shows the Vineyard does but also all the shows the Vineyard might potentially have done, what do you think distinguishes a Vineyard show?
Weiner: That’s a great question. I think the Vineyard is not afraid to explore dark, difficult subject matter and the complexities of what it means to be human. And also not afraid to refuse to lose sight of the humanity in that type of situation. So, for instance, we have heroes that are complex. They do bad things, but we understand why. It makes me really proud that we don’t let audiences off the hook about being able to relate to those difficult, dark places. And then at the same time I think we do a good job of balancing that out with really joyful pieces, that are full of music and dancing and what’s beautiful. Kid Victory had so much darkness in it and so much sadness in it, and yet there’s this beauty to the relationships and how people free themselves. People are freed by the same people they’re trapped by.
That kind of subject matter is big for John Kander (Kid Victory’s co-writer with Greg Pierce). The Vineyard has become a late-career home for him, I understand.
Weiner: Yeah, but he did an early work here, Flora the Red Menace, a long time ago. At least twenty years ago.